Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

I fired my first employee a month ago. The irony is that I spent almost 19 years as an employment attorney and in that time advised countless employers on how to properly terminate literally hundreds of employees. I gave seminars and wrote articles on the subject. But I had never fired anyone, a fact I admitted when giving advice to my clients. And I gave good advice; my problem was that I didn’t follow it with respect to Olga.

Rule #1 – Hire Well. Olga wasn’t our first choice of housekeeper, called an “empleada” (employee) or “chica” here although I never referred to her as “chica” as I find it utterly disrespectful to call a grown woman “girl.” When we visited the school before moving here we had secured our housing and, we thought, a wonderful empleada, Esther. But as our now-friend Sarah was moving here with 2 year old twins, Matt’s boss decreed that Esther, who is great with kids, would work for Sarah. So we were out of luck. Matt’s coworker, Robert, offered to have Olga work for us – his wife and daughter had moved to the US and he was planning to leave Peru in December, so he didn’t need her anymore. Robert said Olga was honest, reliable and quiet. As we had no idea how to find someone suitable, and I was tired of cleaning our house after 2 weeks (hey, it’s dusty here!), we went the easy route and arranged to meet Olga.

The meeting didn’t go well. We had a horrible time trying to communicate, but attributed that to our Spanish deficiency. But we agreed to hire her because it was the path of least resistance – even though everyone from the maintenance workers at Matt’s schools to cab drivers to Esther herself had a wife, friend, cousin, who needed a job, it was too daunting to think about having the awkward interview again. But from day one I bemoaned that Olga was no Esther.

Rule #2 – Set Clear Expectations. Obviously, housekeepers are not the norm in the US, so I had no experience with having someone in my home 5 days a week. Yes, you are rolling your eyes and cursing me under your breath right now, but realize that in Peru it is the culture to hire people if you are middle class (and they usually work a half day on Saturday for you too). Even Matt’s teachers who complain to me about money and have to work extra jobs all have empleadas. Normally, an empleada does EVERYTHING for you – shops, cooks, cleans, does laundry, deals with service providers, pays bills, watches the kids, etc. Olga told us she didn’t cook, and I didn’t realize the full job of an empleada, so when she began she cleaned and did laundry. Matt and I joked that she had the best deal in town as with only two of us in the house, half the house is basically unused and our laundry minimal.

After about 6 weeks I went home for Angela and Craig’s wedding and their Colombian friend Jorge asked me how things were going in South America. I confessed that I was having a hard time with Olga – she cleaned okay, but she was obsessed with laundry – she would spend hours every day washing our clothes and we have a washer and dryer! Jorge tried to explain the culture of help and assured me that Olga wanted more to do and that I had to be firm about asking. He even made me practice some phrases. And he told me to fire her if I didn’t like her.

I returned to Peru confident that I could improve the relationship and feel less awkward in my own home. Because that was a big part of the issue – I was tiptoeing around Olga, who would take over 2 hours just to wash some dinner dishes from the prior night. Meanwhile I would be starving, waiting for her to get out of the kitchen so I could eat my breakfast. So I tried Jorge’s suggestions. I asked her to do laundry less often, to pay the one utility bill that can’t be paid on-line, to clean the dining room when I was having guests for lunch, to buy the cleaning supplies when she told me she was out of them … and had mixed success. She would never shop for me (except when I was terribly ill because  I think she knew she had to as Matt was at work) and would never do something when I asked – usually a few hours or days later – and she continued the incessant laundry. But she wasn’t a bad person and as I didn’t want to clean my own house and had plenty of time to shop and clean, I just complained instead of taking direct action.

Rule #3 – Don’t Ignore a Problem. As our Spanish improved, it became clear that while we were (and are) by no means fluent, we were generally understandable to other Peruvians. But not to Olga. Eventually we realized that she seemed to have a hard time communicating with other Peruvians too, not just us. She would look at the speaker and silently form words before responding. Needless to say, I was not learning any Spanish from her and our communication didn’t improve. In fact, I would clean things myself instead of asking her because it wasn’t worth my effort.

Rule #4 – Terminate Don’t Procrastinate. This is the most important rule of all and I sure broke it. For years I counseled clients to swiftly terminate when warranted because who knows what might happen in the interim between the decision and the act. I had decided to fire Olga – her performance had deteriorated.  She was spending endless hours in our house but doing little more than basic cleaning and laundry, she told us late one Friday night that she would be absent the following Monday and Tuesday due to a doctor appointment in Lima and I had been home all day but she hadn’t mentioned it (and honestly, we would have likely offered to pay her airfare so she could have avoided the 18 hour bus ride each way), she brought a stranger to the house to help her one day because she was leaving early and only told me her plans because I saw the woman and asked who she was… I was ticked. I had inquired about her doctor visit, not sure how much was appropriate to ask, and she gave me some vague answer about a problem with her spine and her stomach and assured me she could work. But I had finally had enough and an American friend who was returning to the US wanted me to hire her empleada, Maria. I had met Maria and loved her – another Esther, warm, friendly and could more or less understand me! The problem was that I couldn’t hire Maria for another few weeks and we were going on vacation and didn’t want the house vacant, so I wanted to keep Olga for just another month.

And then it got worse. Several times I saw her on the street when she was supposed to be working and once she left a workman in my house unattended. She always looked guilty when I saw her and would say she was getting lunch or that she had a bill she had to pay that day. I joked to Matt that I thought she had a boyfriend she was visiting. Finally, one morning I returned to the house unexpectedly and caught her leaving the house. When I asked where she was going she told me she was getting a friend to come help her. I asked why she would need help and she made a lame excuse about not reaching the high windows (mind you, she had never cleaned the windows before). I told her no, which shocked her as I had never said no to anything, and laid into her about leaving the workman unattended and where she was going all the time. She got very defensive and again said lunch. I would have fired her on the spot, but I didn’t have the cash to pay her and Matt had the ATM card. But I resolved to do so as soon as possible.

Rule #5 – Be Prepared for the Termination Meeting. This was the one rule I didn’t break. Once I knew I was firing Olga, the attorney in me sprung into action and I got everything lined up. I was paying Olga severance and had been told to have her sign a document saying we had paid her all of her wages in addition to the severance, so I had one of Matt’s teachers write the document for me. Sarah agreed that we could hire Esther to watch our house while we were all on vacation and talked to Esther who was willing to do so. On the way home Matt and I stopped for cash and I told him that if Olga was there I was firing her that night.

She was and Matt made an immediate beeline upstairs, where he would spend the next 1 1/2 hours while I did the deed. I sat Olga down and told her that it was her last day. She was shocked and asked why and I told her that we didn’t communicate well, that her performance had been slipping and that she didn’t seem interested in working lately. She started silently crying and I felt absolutely awful but stuck to my guns despite her pleas that she would improve. And then she played her trump card and said “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” or at least that is what I understood, with a very expectant look on her face. I responded that I didn’t understand and then she said the words every employer dreads to here “Estoy embarazada” – I’m pregnant. Crap. I understood that one and asked her why she hadn’t told me. She gave a vague excuse and then added that she wasn’t working hard because she was in danger of miscarriage and that she was also going to doctor appointments when she left my house. Double crap. My mind was racing – in the US I could still fire her as I made the decision before I knew she was pregnant but I don’t know squat about Peruvian employment law. I then said the stupidest thing ever, something like “well maybe it will be better if you aren’t doing this kind of work then.” Thankfully, I doubt she understood me. I stuck with the plan and fired her anyhow. She asked if she could return the next day to get her things and I said no as I knew she would show up with an ultrasound or something and then I would feel like an even bigger jerk. So she got her things together and then we awkwardly waited 30 minutes for the cab I was sending her home in to arrive. UGH.

I lived in fear for the following week that someone would show up at my door and beat me up or worse, tell me that Olga had a miscarriage, but it has been over a month now and these things have not occurred (knock on wood). Even better, Maria began working for us a few weeks ago and is amazing. She works only 4 days a week and much shorter hours than Olga and does everything I ask her – including shopping and some cooking – and is excited to share her Peruvian recipes with me. We chat every day and sometimes even eat a meal together. It is wonderful not to feel uncomfortable in my own home and to be able to enjoy this big perk of my new life.


Wining Part II – Colchagua Valley, Chile

We left Mendoza and flew to Santiago, Chile, where we had an afternoon and evening before being picked up by our guide, Pablo, and driven to the Colchagua Valley for more wine tasting. We saw very little of Santiago, but it felt like any other large city in a Western country. So similar that I had flashbacks when we stopped at the Starbucks in the morning to get a muffin before hitting the road and I saw all the businessmen (yes, only men) in suits having meetings or on their laptops. I don’t miss that life!

We did have time in Santiago for two very nice meals. The first was lunch at Bar Liguria. We got a bit confused walking there and I finally stopped and asked a friendly-looking woman where it was. She was so friendly that she walked us there. She wanted to practice her English, and I happily obliged. Who said city dwellers are unfriendly? We sat outside at the restaurant and had a lovely meal, despite some issues trying to translate the menu. Food terms are so regional that our Peruvian knowledge was no help beyond the basics. Beth and Chris have this amazing app that translates text before your eyes that we were using until we were informed the restaurant has a no cell phone policy. Oops! I explained we were just translating the menu and the waitress sent over a waiter who spoke some English, so we could put the phone away. After walking around a bit and then relaxing for a few hours at our hotel, we had dinner at Aquí Está Coco, a renowned seafood restaurant. The decor and ambience were great – in particular the restroom sinks made out of tree trunks – and the food was good. As it was a Tuesday night, the place lacked energy and the vibe seemed a bit focused on clearing the joint so the staff could go home. But we had a good meal nonetheless.

Pablo, the owner of Grado Sur Expediciones, picked us up on Wednesday morning and we headed to the countryside. Pablo was great – fun, interesting, and spoke perfect English, an added bonus. His company handles more active tours, such as mountain biking and kayaking, and our ride reflected it.

No need for the kayak/bike rack on this trip! But we were comfortable and it was good for the mountain roads (and our luggage). Pablo said that some of the nicer hotels give him the stink eye when he pulls up to collect guests, so we met him in the service drive at The W.

The fall colors in the Colchagua Valley were at their peak and grapes were still being harvested, so the valley was stunning. First stop was lunch at Viu Manent. Wow – the setting, the food, the wine, the service – everything was absolutely perfect.  We each ordered a different glass of wine and passed them around to have our own tasting. We didn’t tour the winery, but if I were ever in the area again I would definitely do the tour (complete with horse-drawn carriage) and have another meal there. Part of the attraction of the meal was that we were not limited to a set menu, as on our Mendoza tours, so we could have exactly what we wanted and each dish was a winner.

Second stop was the Laura Hartwig winery. Our tour was very nice, but we, and Beth in particular, were turned off by the winery’s label –  a prim picture of the now 83-year-old Laura back in the 50s. Very old-fashioned and it made us feel we were drinking wine with a aura of disapproval hanging over us. Really, check out her picture on the website and tell me if you think they could use a better marketing campaign! It was cool to see the barrels being filled and because our guide was so nice we bought a bottle of wine for us to drink with dinner that night.

Our final stop was Museo Colchagua, our only museum of the trip. It was quite interesting, with exhibits ranging from fossils to pre-Colombian artifacts to steam engines to the Chilean mine rescue in 2010, complete with the drill bits they used to drill the escape passage and the capsule that freed the miners. Had we not imbibed generous amounts of wine, we likely would have appreciated it a bit more. We decided on a simple meal that evening and bought cold cuts, cheese and a frozen pizza to have for dinner at our quaint inn, Posada Colchagua. The proprietess was very sweet and opened up her kitchen for us and offered us  bottle of wine. We were so over-wined, that we had to decline.

Day two started with a 2 hour drive through the mountains, instead of the 20 minute direct route to Viña Santa Cruz. For the record, I voted against it as I despise car rides, but I must admit that the views were impressive despite the fog. Even more impressive was the view from Viña Santa Cruz overlooking its vineyards.

Our guide described Viña Santa Cruz as a tourism winery and that was certainly true. We took a gondola to the top of the estate where there were three mini museums, each devoted to a different indigenous Chilean culture: Mapuche, Aymara and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). It was very interesting and Pablo was an informative guide. His descriptions made all of us want to visit Easter Island.

After we descended our tour began and that is when it became apparent that wine is not the focus at Viña Santa Cruz. Our guide was impersonal and pedantic: he would ask us a question and stare at us until someone would venture a response. Usually he would tell us we were wrong with a curt “No!” I felt like I was in junior high and hadn’t studied for a quiz. Despite the $30 per person cost of the tour, we were only allowed to taste the cheapest wines they make. Pablo knew something was up when we left without buying a single bottle of wine.

We had lunch in Lolol, Pablo’s hometown, at a lovely local restaurant. We walked down the main street in the town and saw where the homes were destroyed from the earthquake in 2010. Much devastation and the rebuilding process is slow due to a lack of funds.



After lunch we went to Mont Gras for a tasting instead of a full tour. Our host Marcelo was animated and very generous with the pours, which included all the different price points of the wines. It definitely made up for our bad experience at Viña Santa Cruz and we bought wine to prove it!

We headed into Santa Cruz where Beth and I walked around the market, yep, just like everywhere else, while the guys had a drink. Afterwards we headed to dinner at the lovely Vino Bello. Good wines, Italian food and service made for a great last dinner together.

Our last day together started with some excitement – an earthquake measuring 4.7 on the Richter Scale shortly after we arose. Matt and I had never experienced an earthquake before so we were a bit freaked out, particularly after visiting Lolol the prior day. To me it felt like a truck hit the building and then 4 waves came through that rocked me simultaneously up and down and back and forth. Very odd sensation. We found out later that an earthquake that small isn’t considered anything by those who live in the area and Chris, who lived in California as a kid, didn’t even notice it!

We went to the swanky Lapostolle Clos Apalta winery for our only tour of the day. The owner is the great-granddaughter of the creator of Grand Marnier and it was impressive to see what old money and a good distribution system can do for a winery! The winery is organic and biodynamic, the latter of which I don’t totally understand but it includes elements of mysticism, moon cycles and the like. The winery is intended to look like a nest perched in the mountains and it uses gravity (something we also saw in wineries in Spain) as the force to create its wines, with the wines moving down 6 stories during the process instead of being machine moved. The winery was impressive, as it should be given the US $10 million price tag. It was an excellent final tour for our trip.

But just because our tours were over didn’t mean our wine shopping was! We stopped at the Montes winery for our version of a tasting (ordering wines and sharing) and a snack. It was another lovely winery; the staff was friendly and the wines were good.

It was also interesting to see the fields being harvested. I made the mistake of saying “oh, those poor workers,” when I meant poor because they were engaged in back-breaking work while we were drinking, but I was mocked endlessly. Pablo’s brothers’ business is supplying the harvesters for the vineyards. We suggested they should also provide a wine shipping service as this was not available in the area as it had been in Mendoza.

Our final winery stop was Las Niñas, a winery owned by 3 generations of women, for the express purpose of buying their “high heel” wine per Pablo’s suggestion. Unfortunately, we learned that they had relabeled the wine because they felt it was too feminine and not doing well in the market. Clearly they were not shipping to the US where novelty labels fly off the shelves, particularly if the wine is good! Our final stop before the airport was a quaint restaurant where we had the best empanadas ever and sopapillas (fried dough) with honey for dessert.

We had just enough time to get Beth and Chris to the airport for their flight. Then Matt and I collapsed for the night – no dinner and no wine – before we returned to Peru the next morning. All in all, an amazing trip. Most importantly, all 5 1/2 bottles made it safely home! photo 2

So Much Wine and So Little Time – Mendoza, Argentina

Our friends Beth and Chris were our first South American guests. We couldn’t persuade them to come to Peru so we met in Argentina and Chile for a wine adventure. All adventures need some mishaps and ours started with a pretty big one: as Beth and Chris sat on the tarmac in San Antonio, TX, for their flight to Dallas, they received a text that their flight from Dallas to Santiago was canceled and they would be flying out the next day. We were all disappointed to be losing an entire day of vacation together, so we started off strong when they finally arrived in Mendoza.

First stop after our lovely inn, Villa Mansa, was the tiny tasting room at the Carmelo Patti winery per the recommendation of our driver, Marcelo. Carmelo was holding court, surrounded by other tasters, but warmly welcome us despite our limited Spanish. The wines were delightful and we each bought a bottle of the 2004 Gran Assemblage, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Who said Mendoza is just about Malbec? A perfect first stop now that our trip was up and running!

Marcelo and Barbara at Villa Mansa attempted to get us last minute lunch reservations at Zuccardi, a popular winery owned by the cousin of a woman Beth and Chris met on the plane, but were unsuccessful. After calling other wineries, they finally got us a reservation at Vistandes. When we pulled up, we were pleased with the choice as it had the beautiful views its name suggests and the outdoor patio was lovely. Unfortunately, our initial server was terrible, the food was awful, and about 10 minutes into the meal I fell ill (no, not due to wine consumption!). We rushed back to Villa Mansa where I was indisposed the rest of the day and evening. While Matt and friends offered to stay on site, there wasn’t much that could be done for me, so they headed to Mendoza for dinner that night.

The next day I was vastly improved when we were picked up at 9:00 by Ampora Wine Tours to start our day of wining in the Uco Valley. Our guide, Sabrina, was very knowledgable and friendly and the other 4 tourers  – a Canadian, Brit, Swiss and Brazilian – were all pleasant company (no wine snobs, thank goodness). We learned that tasting wine early in the morning is best because your palate is at its freshest, so that became our excuse for drinking by 10 am each morning. First stop was the organic Bodega Domaine Bousquet.

We pulled ourselves away from the beautiful grounds and went to Bodega Gimenez Riili. This was our favorite stop of the day. Not only were the wines excellent, but the charming owner, Eduardo, gave our tour, complete with tank and barrel tastings. Our final tasting was on the beautiful patio and complete with cheeses, quince, bodega-made chocolate and fresh empanadas brought out by Eduardo’s wife. We could have sat there all afternoon in utter bliss and our only disappointment was that we couldn’t buy the chocolate to go with our wine.

Our final stop was lunch at Bodega O. Fournier. We were late, so we caught the very end of the tour, which was fine as we had already heard the wine making spiel twice that day. The medieval barrel room was over the top and Matt spent the rest of the day humming the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme. Lunch was in a beautiful restaurant, with average food (I stand by my prior statement that Argentine beef is not impressive www. and nice wines, but the experience had a definite assembly line feel as we saw other tables from other tour companies throughout the room and the meal wasn’t as amazing as the setting. Except for the dessert, which was incredible and included a spun caramel confection, or as we preferred to call it, bird’s nest. Matt had to restrain himself from picking off the plates of our fellow diners who didn’t eat theirs. In addition, our wine glasses were readily refilled so that was a plus!

Beth and Chris were accumulating wine to ship at a brisk pace, so we headed to Mendoza after our tour to drop off their loot at Ampora. We wandered about the vendor stalls at Plaza Independencia, which felt very similar to wandering around any outdoor market in any country. Some things are apparently universal. We continued to walk around aimlessly, found another similar but smaller market, and ended up eating at Anna Bistró, where the other three had eaten the prior night because nothing else in the neighborhood was open so early  (it was only 7:30). It was very cute, with a nice patio, attentive service from a cute waiter and decent food. My cosmopolitan was terrible (we were all off wine by that point) but as I didn’t need more alcohol, I didn’t mind not drinking it.

Our next day was much like the prior one – Ampora tours picked us up at 9:00 and we were wine tasting by 10 am. Jorge was our guide and the four of us were the only guests, which made for a somewhat more relaxed atmosphere.  We visited the Luján de Cuyo region and started at Bodega Lagarde, which is right on a busy street in Luján de Cuyo with its vineyards behind it. They offer a pure Cabernet Franc, the first we had tasted on our tours, which both Matt and Chris loved. They also produce sparkling wines, which is a bit unique in the area, so we saw the racks where they hand turn the bottles during riddling – the process of getting the sediment to consolidate in the neck of the bottle for removal prior to final corking.

One thing that amazed us on all of the tours is the manual labor involved in producing the wines – the grapes are harvested by hand, sorted by women (always women, we were informed repeatedly, due to their nimble fingers and attention to detail) at a long table, and, at some wineries, the stems and leaves removed by hand as well. Then, add on the time it takes to make good wine – several months in the casks and time in the bottle as well, and it is amazing that one can buy a decent bottle of wine for $10-$15!

Our next stop was Pulenta Estate, and apart from my notes that indicate we really loved these wines, the only other thing I remember is that the owner is a car aficionado and imports Porsches to Argentina. The winery had an area with some very cool engines and pictures of various cars. Maybe when we drink this bottle some additional memories will return!

Pulenta Cabernet Franc

Pulenta Gran Cabernet Franc

After Pulenta we went to Bodega Caelum, a small, family business owned by a woman and run by her son and daughter. The family had produced grapes for other wineries for 10 years prior to opening their own winery in 2009. The son, Hernán, conducted our tour and his pride in his family’s business was evident and endearing. The family took a lot of time in deciding the name and label and settled on Caelum, a small constellation in the southern hemisphere that depicts a sculptor’s chisel. The tour had a personal feel and Hernán even showed us how to hand-label a bottle and mentioned that on occasion he and his sister pitch in to do so if they need to get a shipment out. The wines were good, including a Malbec dessert wine that we hadn’t seen at the other wineries. The family also grows amazing pistachios, which we eagerly bought (although we ended up leaving a half of a bag behind in Mendoza as we knew they would be confiscated when we returned to Chile).



Our final stop of the tour was a gourmet lunch with wine pairings at Osadia de Crear at the Dominio del Plata winery. The meal was excellent, even the ribeye was decent, and we agreed it was our best meal in Mendoza, and that wasn’t because it was about 3:00 and we were in desperate need of food! The experience felt more personal than that at Bodega O. Fournier and the food was definitely better.

Osadia de Crear Menu

Osadia de Crear Menu

After the tour we returned to Ampora so Beth and Chris could ship their two cases of wine back to the US. Matt and I were jealous – due to the difficulty we have had in getting packages delivered to Cajamarca, we limited ourselves to the wine that I could pack in our suitcases (I have become a master at this practice due to the booze runs we make in Lima), which ultimately were 5 1/2 bottles – the half being the malbec dessert wine that Caelum cleverly advertises will fit in your shoe and it did in Matt’s size 12! The irony is that upon their return to the US, Beth and Chris determined that they can buy most of the wines they shipped in the US for only slightly more expensive prices while Matt and I cannot find any of the wines in Cajamarca.

Mendoza was just the start of our tour – next up, the Colchagua Valley, Chile.